How strange to read of moral pronouncements pro and con women porn stars in the 21st century. Some debates never seem to end, do they and it’s curious that the ‘sturm und drang’ is always about the seller, not the buyers. The thought does occur, particularly in Bangkok. And it brings to mind the haunting case of ‘Pingala, the public woman’. We find her story in one of India’s favourite books, the Srimad Bhagavatam or Bhagavata Purana, cherished even today as the ‘biography of Sri Krishna’.
The Bhagavata Purana happened we’re told because even after compiling the Vedas and the Mahabharata, Rishi Krishna Dvaipayana Vyasa (‘Vedvyas’) was not at peace and shared his unquiet with Sage Narada, who then shared the Bhagavata with him to calm his nerves.
Pingala’s framework story, as is often the way, is that somebody meets somebody, is struck by their nobility and asks them about it. Just so in the portion concerning her in the Bhagavata Purana, King Yadu meets a young priest whose face and manners shine with the lustre of serene self-possession and he wants to know how the priest achieved it. With becoming humility, the priest says he has had many teachers, including an ‘ajagara’ (serpent) and the ‘pancha bhuta’ (five elements) and explains what he observed and learned from each. And then in 11:8:22-44, he tells Yadu, “In the city of Videha, there used to be a public woman called Pingala. Now hear o king, what I learned from her.”
Pingala stood at her doorway as usual one evening displaying her beautiful form to attract passing custom. She fantasised about that one rich man who would fall in love with her and look after her for good. She worried about it till midnight, when suddenly she had an attack of ice-cold awareness: “Just what am I doing making myself so unhappy, selling myself to men who are lamentable themselves, hoping someone will love me and look after me? Am I so unintelligent that I can’t see how pointless this is? The best way to be happy is to be unafraid and live my life confidently with the faith that I’ll cope, that ‘Somebody’ is with me already.”
“With that,” says the ancient voice, “Pingala sat down on her bed. Serene in her newfound realisation, she went to sleep happy.” Isn’t it interesting how people have always remade their lives with independent reasoning?
Renuka Narayanan writes on religion and culture